Monthly Archives: June 2014

And the Answer Is

In my last post, I put up a challenge that was accepted by two worthy gardeners. Readers were asked to figure out this puzzle:
What is this plant and what happened to it?

Nancy hit it on the head with columbine and leaf-miner damage.
Coming in second, Marcia makes a good case for gingko leaves, noting that many gingkoes have been planted in New York City (I have stepped on their very smelly fruits on city sidewalks).

I see leaf mining every year in columbine plants at the Clinton Community Garden. The only other plants in the garden that I’ve seen with this kind of tunneling are hollyhocks. The columbines seem strangely unperturbed by this summer-long attack on their leaves, but the hollyhocks that are invaded are often decimated. Could it be partly because columbine plants have so many leaves? Hollyhocks put out fewer, though much bigger, leaves.

The creature doing the mining is something I haven’t really paid much attention to. By the time I notice what’s happened, the adult insect has emerged and moved on. Now I know that a kind of fly is responsible for columbine damage, but there are other types of flies, moths, beetles, and wasps that also attack specific plants this way. It’s pretty ingenious on the part of the insect: She injects her eggs inside the leaf. When they hatch, they begin eating their way through, protected above and below by leaf tissue, and emerging as an adult at the end of the tunnel. You can chart the growth of the insect by the widening of the tunnel as it reaches the end of the leaf. Columbines are known for surviving this parasitism quite well and are used as traps to protect more vulnerable plants (in greenhouses, for instance). Another reason to love my columbines.

Some side notes to leaf mining: To minimize infestation, don’t compost the damaged leaves. Hairy-leaved plants discourage leaf miners.


The Brutality of the Gardener

My community garden plot is at times enormous and others minute. Enormous is when I’m waiting for things to come up—how can I have all this space and not be filling it? Minute happens fairly quickly afterwards when I in combination with nature have filled it and I begin to realize that if I don’t do something soon, nature will keep filling it to bursting. That’s when I become a brute, cutting back luxuriant foliage, digging up plants and demanding they live elsewhere in a spot that pleases me, tying up floppy leaves and stems that prefer lying down, pulling up plants and sending them off to the compost heap. Inevitably during these activities of beautification, I injure something beautiful. This morning for instance, I backed into and broke off a sprig of columbine that I had just finished photographing. It sounds silly, maybe, I did get a picture after all, but it pained me: the delicate, searching tendril had held a perfect pale green bud that hung over the stepping stones so trustingly.

Purple columbine.

Elegant, wild columbine.

After that and some other acts of destruction, I took myself out of the garden and stretched out on the sun-warmed brick path. No other human was around. I looked up to top branches of a large beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) where a catbird sang mightily, his beak opened wide. It’s a good thing there are trees and birds, I thought. They take your mind off the ground.

Catbird in beauty bush.

In the catbird seat.

A little bit of the sky helped me get back to earth, remembering I still hadn’t watered and there were potted plants that were still waiting to go in the ground.


Vitex with columbine, lavender, and iris.

So back to the garden I go to put problem solving above plant bullying. The eternal issue is, of course, space. In a small garden plot (6′ by 5′, maybe)  surrounded by other small plots, it is perhaps the height of vanity to attempt to grow food “crops” and domesticated herbs together with wildflowers and ornamental plants. I would like to say I’ve been practicing companion planting, but this is just something that has happened in the last 20 years. Plants have come my way—through other people and of their own accord (those columbines). Very, very slowly I have begun to understand them better partly by making all the mistakes of the brutal kind described above and partly by looking at this little space as a complete thing and wondering what’s happening there from way below to just below the surface to high up in the leaves and stems. Much as I sometimes long for the chance to start over with straight rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, and lettuce, I think I would have missed seeing what my wild-ish garden has given me, beauty of the aesthetic kind as well as of the food-for-thought, puzzle-solving kind.

And with that, I offer this puzzle to be discussed next time:


What’s this? Send in your thoughts.